Luke 13:10–17 (NRSV)
Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.
The most challenging question for me when I read a miracle account in the Gospels is, “why has God stopped performing grand miracles like these in our midst?” There are many today who are in bondage, physically or spiritually, who need Jesus’s healing power. We recognize this need in our fourth area of focus: stamping out killer diseases by improving health globally. We want to do something about these needs that we see all around us.
Reading this miracle story today and hearing of the supernatural power of Jesus we wonder, where is Jesus today? What is he doing? Can Jesus still perform these miracles today?
Let’s address these questions by diving into the text ourselves. What if we had gathered with the people of God on that Sabbath all those years ago?
Which character in the story would we be?
We might imagine ourselves as the leader of the synagogue. All of us are, as we pointed out in the first week of this series, Christian leaders who are keepers of the faith and representatives of the church. We all have different roles and temperaments in church leadership. Some of us dream big dreams about how things could be and others of us try to maintain the status quo as faithfully as possible. Some of us are rule keepers and others stretch the rules to accommodate for a need. Like the synagogue leader, sometimes it is our role in the church to interject when something is happening out of order and say, “wait a minute, I think our church policies require that we do things differently.” Sometimes those rules are unpopular, because we would rather do things our own way. But in every church, there are people like this synagogue leader who try to maintain the rules. Oftentimes, that has been my cross to bear.
Most of the time, the rules we have are good! They help protect us against a whole host of problems. Even more importantly, the rules the synagogue leader was referencing had come directly from God. He was not quoting mere human rules and regulations, but the very law of God. In Deuteronomy 5, Moses gathered the people and told them what God requires of them, saying “observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God.” Perhaps we can understand the synagogue leader’s point. “Any other day would be suitable for healing, but our Scriptures and denominational regulations prohibit healing on the Sabbath,” we might say. “Come back tomorrow.”
If there are any rules we understand as a church congregation, it is the rule of Sabbath observance. It was engrained in us from a young age that Sunday’s are for church and family, and not for work or sports. We find ourselves in the position of the synagogue leader saying, “can’t you do that another time? Why don’t you understand how important this is?”
Perhaps we don’t think of ourselves as the synagogue leader because we know better. We know that the point of the Sabbath was not to restrict the power of God to heal, nor was it merely given as a prohibition of work. Sabbath is a wonderful gift from God! In Egypt, the people of God were slaves who had to endure continual work without rest, but in the Sabbath God had given them rest. God had delivered them from the shackles of evil into a new day of abundant life, joy, and peace. How fitting would it be for Jesus Christ, the Lord of the Sabbath, to liberate this woman who had been in bondage for eighteen years on the Sabbath? How wonderful it was for him to provide this woman with a reason to praise her God on the day of rest and liberation!
See, we know better than to ignore the person who is suffering right in front of us. Surely, we would not tell anyone, let alone Jesus, to cease doing good works on the Sabbath. After all, we live under grace, not under the law. We know that the church is not just a place for the maintenance of boundaries between the Sabbath and the workweek, but a place for healing! It’s a place for the supernatural work of Jesus Christ.
We know how much this work of healing is needed in our midst. We pray, week after week, for those who battle internal oppression of cancer cells that grow and spread throughout the body. We lament the ways dementia has held the minds of those we love in bondage so that they seem to no longer be the people we used to know. We know those who struggle with chronic pain, both physical and mental, that holds people in bondage, keeping them from doing what they would like to do. We know the weight of grief and fear that weighs on the hearts of those we love, from which they desperately need relief. We see the struggle around us with opioid and other addictions.
We want to see those we love healed of their diseases, released from what oppresses them. So, we strive ourselves to be conduits of God’s healing Spirit.
We have good reason to follow Jesus’s example as we serve as ministers of the Gospel and ambassadors for Christ. In the sending of the seventy in Luke 10, Jesus sent out his followers to proclaim peace and heal the sick. In the great commission of Matthew 28, Jesus gave authority to his disciples that they might live out his teaching. And in John 14, Jesus told his disciples that “whoever believes in me will do the works that I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these.” We see these texts as commandments, not just to Jesus’s first followers, but to us. We long to embody the oft-repeated saying that we are “the hands and feet of Christ” in the world. After all, if we don’t do it, who will?
We easily identify with Jesus in this story. We don’t just denounce the legalists who get in the way of the Gospel, but we want to liberate others from whatever holds them in bondage. Granted, we might not have the supernatural power Jesus had to heal the sick or lift up and straighten the woman who was bent over for eighteen years, but there are things we can do.
We might not perform supernatural miracles, but we can engage in works of healing and justice so that both invisible and visible chains of bondage are broken and walls are torn down. In our own families, church, and community, we check up on people. We pray for them. We call and encourage them to seek the help they need.
Through the United Methodist Church more broadly, we engage in acts of healing. We’ve participated in the Imagine No Malaria Campaign to stop children in the majority world from dying from preventable diseases. We support summer camp programs, especially those that offer opportunities for those without positive role models at home. We send cleaning supplies through the United Methodist Committee on Relief to stop the spread of mold and disease after floods.
And in our own work, outside of the church, we’re involved in things like Relay for Life that work for healing in more secular ways.
Oh, how much good work there is to be done! We busily scurry around trying to help as many people as we can. How good it feels to us when we are finally able to accomplish something positive. When a person we’ve been encouraging takes a step towards their own health or when someone we’ve been praying for receives a measure of healing.
Like the crowd, we celebrate all the great things Jesus is doing for us and for the health of the world God loves. Isn’t it cool when we have something to celebrate? Isn’t it cool when we can actually see the work of Jesus in our midst? How awesome is it that the sick are being made well, the church is becoming a place of healing, and the love of God is being magnified.
So we come here, week after week, to hear a word, to pray for healing, and to give thanks for all the ways our prayers are being answered. We go home with eyes wide open to look for Jesus in our midst. But we miss something important.
See, we might, on our best days, do a good job of following Jesus and acting as his hands and feet. We might even, on occasion, be able to put aside our inner-synagogue leader who prioritizes policies over people. We might act as a good cheering section for Jesus, celebrating what he is doing around us.
But when Jesus sees us, he sees the woman who is in bondage, hunched over for eighteen years. When Jesus sees us, he sees a child who needs to be set free and healed from whatever holds us in bondage. When Jesus sees us in the crowd of the faithful gathered in worship, he invites us forward, he lays his hands on us, anoints our heads with oil, and immediately we are set free to stand up and praise our God.
We all have different needs. We’re burdened by different concerns. Some of us are tired out, stressed out, and burnt out. Others of us just want to see Jesus moving here in church so powerfully that we get discouraged when things don’t go according to plan. We may not even be caring for our own health, because we’re so concerned about the health of others.
When we rush to go out and follow Jesus in healing the sick and freeing people from bondage, we might just forget that we need saving too. We might set off on our mission of good news only to realize that there’s something holding us back in bondage, that we still need to hear the good news ourselves. We cannot heal others unless we are healed ourselves.
Friends, more than anyone else in this story, we are like the woman who needed to be set free from her ailment. We are beloved sons and daughters of Abraham. We are children of the living God. And in this moment of gathering to hear the word, we have done what she did. We have faithfully come to hear the word of Jesus. We have taken our place in the crowd, expecting the same old thing, but hoping that this Jesus might have something new to teach us. We simply showed up for this moment of Sabbath, as we always do. And as we have taken our place in the crowd to hear the word, Jesus is calling us forward. Jesus is calling us to himself. He is offering his hands to touch our heads with oil. Jesus is offering to set us free.
Miracles of healing and deliverance do still happen today. They might not take the form we expect. They might leave us behind to pick up the pieces. But the good news is that the healing power of Jesus Christ is available to all of us. All it takes is for us to show up and hear a word and expect Jesus to show up and set us free.
Today, we have the opportunity to respond to this word by being anointed with oil and hearing an assurance of the work of God being done in us to heal us of our brokenness, whatever it may be. When we we offer opportunities for anointing with oil, we often think that it’s something for someone else. That person who is sick and is really in need. But the truth is, we all need to be healed of something. We all need to be set free from whatever holds us in bondage. We all need Jesus.